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KremlinGate Enters Uncharted Waters as Russian Links Overwhelm DC

New revelations of clandestine ties between the president and Moscow bring turmoil to the Oval Office

Just a few days ago, I broke the story that the National Security Agency, the country’s most prolific and secretive spy service, was withholding highly sensitive intelligence from the White House, fearing that it might be compromised by members of Team Trump who possess unsettling links to Moscow. That bombshell, which gained significant media traction, was pooh-poohed by some pundits who preferred to ignore the new administration’s increasingly obvious ties to the Kremlin.

Then Michael Flynn, the embattled National Security Advisor, got pushed out late Monday, once the extent of his dishonesty about his repeated phone calls to the Russian ambassador came to light. Flynn’s unceremonious defenestration, just three weeks after the inauguration, sets a White House record—but what’s remarkable is how someone as slippery and dissimulating as Flynn lasted even that long.

Particularly since the Justice Department shared its security concerns about the National Security Advisor with the White House weeks ago, based on intercepts of calls between Flynn and the Russian embassy in Washington, to no avail. That Flynn lied about the content of those calls, specifically discussions of lifting sanctions on Russia, to Vice President Mike Pence, offered the ostensible reason why Flynn tendered his resignation, but the reality is murkier and more troubling.

In the first place, it’s difficult to see how Flynn decided to parley with Moscow without a go-ahead of some kind from Donald Trump. We don’t know this to be the case and cannot allege or even speculate that this occurred. But while Flynn is unquestionably a loose cannon, as a career military man he understands the chain of command with perfect clarity. Moreover, accepting that the soon-to-be National Security Advisor opened up back-channels of communication with the Kremlin all by himself is as credible as the notion that the Plumbers decided to break into the Watergate without orders from higher up.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Spy Revolt Against Trump Begins

Intelligence Community pushes back against a White House it considers leaky, untruthful and penetrated by the Kremlin

 

In a recent column, I explained how the still-forming Trump administration is already doing serious harm to America’s longstanding global intelligence partnerships. In particular, fears that the White House is too friendly to Moscow are causing close allies to curtail some of their espionage relationships with Washington—a development with grave implications for international security, particularly in the all-important realm of counterterrorism.

Now those concerns are causing problems much closer to home—in fact, inside the Beltway itself. Our Intelligence Community is so worried by the unprecedented problems of the Trump administration—not only do senior officials possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, there are nagging questions about basic competence regarding Team Trump—that it is beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust.

That the IC has ample grounds for concern is demonstrated by almost daily revelations of major problems inside the White House, a mere three weeks after the inauguration. The president has repeatedly gone out of his way to antagonize our spies, mocking them and demeaning their work, and Trump’s personal national security guru can’t seem to keep his story straight on vital issues.

 That’s Mike Flynn, the retired Army three-star general who now heads the National Security Council. Widely disliked in Washington for his brash personality and preference for conspiracy-theorizing over intelligence facts, Flynn was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for managerial incompetence and poor judgment—flaws he has brought to the far more powerful and political NSC.

Flynn’s problems with the truth have been laid bare by the growing scandal about his dealings with Moscow. Strange ties to the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin himself, have dogged Flynn since he left DIA, and concerns about his judgment have risen considerably since it was revealed that after the November 8 election, Flynn repeatedly called the Russian embassy in Washington to discuss the transition. The White House has denied that anything substantive came up in conversations between Flynn and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Will Belarus Be Putin’s Next Victim?

Another Kremlin-driven crisis may be coming to Eastern Europe

Belarus rarely makes it into Western news reports, and hardly ever in a positive way. Governed since 1994 by Aleksandr Lukashenka, a Soviet-era throwback strongman—in a perfect touch, he once ran a Communist collective farm—Belarus for decades has been bemoaned as Europe’s last dictatorship thanks to its poor human rights record and less than democratic ways.

Lukashenka has shown little interest in currying Western favor until quite recently. His regime, guided by the strong hand of the secret police—still termed the KGB in fully Soviet fashion—has imprisoned and occasionally disappeared journalists and politicians who get on Lukashenka’s bad side. As full-time Soviet nostalgists, the regime and its leader have pined for days of lost Communist glory, and efforts at liberalization of the economy and society have made little progress in Minsk.

The ramshackle Belarusian economy remains mired in statist inefficiencies, and the only thing that has kept Lukashenka afloat all these years has been Kremlin help. Vladimir Putin long courted Minsk with loans and low prices on imported Russian energy, in exchange receiving Belarus as a vital buffer state against NATO and the West.

Its geographic location, bordering on three members of the Atlantic Alliance—Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia—gives Belarus an undeniable importance to Russia, one which has only increased since 2014, when Moscow’s ties to NATO soured after Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. Given perennial Russian fears of invasion from the west, Belarus looms large in Moscow’s military imagination—and war plans.

In practice, the Kremlin has long considered Belarus hardly more than an extension of Russia in security terms. For years, relations between Moscow and Minsk have been close in defense and intelligence matters, and joint military exercises with Russian and Belarusian forces have been commonplace. Since the latter uses Russian weapons and defense doctrine, and both armies speak the same language, the Kremlin has considered Belarusian forces to be fully interoperable with its own. In Russian war planning, Minsk’s military has counted in the Kremlin’s numbers.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The White House Just Charted a Dangerous Course with NSC Machinations

Trump’s national security coup cuts military and spies out of big decisions

This weekend the mainstream media went bananas over President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Seemingly every bien-pensant in the United States and far beyond went on social media to howl gigantic curses at the White House, denouncing it as un-American, hateful, and quite possibly Hitlerian for temporarily halting immigration from seven Muslim countries. That the ban lasts only 90 days seemed to get lost in the hysteria that Trump unleashed.

As someone who favors tough counterterrorism measures, I too was underwhelmed by the executive order. I want stronger vetting of immigrants and visitors, who need to be asked more questions about possible involvement in jihadism and extremism. Banning simply on the grounds of nationality makes little sense, while many have noted that countries which produce huge numbers of jihadists such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt were suspiciously left off the block list. Not to mention that if you want to keep terrorists out, Muslims in Brussels per capita are more likely to advocate violent jihad than their co-religionists in most Muslim countries.

Nevertheless, getting tough on terrorists and other undesirable immigrants was a big part of Trump’s campaign last year, so nobody should be surprised that he followed up, decisively, just a week after his inauguration. Moreover, panic about this executive order is overwrought, since presidential EOs are subject to checks and balances, and this one will likely be held up in courts for years.

The biggest problem with this EO is that the White House seems to have written and released it without the slightest consultation with the Federal departments and agencies charged with its implementation. The result has been chaos and confusion about how to bureaucratically execute what the president wants. This sort of approach indicates the White House is more interested in appearing tough than implementing successful policies.

That said, the weekend’s immigration EO accomplished what may have been its actual purpose—distracting everyone from the White House’s far more consequential changes to the National Security Council. The NSC has been around since 1947, but it’s not the sort of outfit that usually generates much public interest. Customarily staffed by wonks who excel at giving briefings, the NSC isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s enormously influential in policymaking.

Read the rest at The Observer …

President Trump’s First Foreign Policy Crisis: Balkan War Drums Beat Again

Vladimir Putin views Western intervention in Bosnia and  Kosovo as an affront to the Slavic Orthodox world—and he plans on revenge

In the decade-and-a-half of war in far-flung places since the 9/11 attacks on our country, it’s easy to forget how much time Western spies, soldiers and diplomats spent in the 1990s trying to save the Balkans from themselves. After Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991, leaving violence and turmoil in its wake, it fell to NATO, led by the United States, to sort out that ugly mess. Now, a generation later, the temporary solutions Washington crafted are coming apart, and war may be returning to Europe’s unstable Southeast.

First, Bosnia-Hercegovina, which got the lion’s share of media attention back in the 1990s—by no means all of it accurate—has limped along as a half-failed state for the last two decades. Mired in crime and corruption, not to mention a serious problem with Islamic extremism, Bosnia is ailing politically, economically and socially. The strange, jury-rigged arrangement hashed out by President Bill Clinton in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995 to keep Bosnia together after that country’s terrible civil war, was never meant to be more than a short-term solution.

Yet Bosnia is still stuck with the Dayton system, with its weak state in Sarajevo, and much power devolved to two pseudo-state entities: the mostly Muslim Federation (with a dwindling Croatian minority) and the Serbian Republic—Republika Srpska to the natives. This awkward arrangement leaves nobody content. It’s too much power devolution for Muslims, not enough for Serbs, and the Croats resent not having their own, third entity. Dayton brought short-term peace but assured that nobody’s Balkan porridge would ever be quite right for the long haul.

 Now the Republika Srpska’s leadership, after years of frustration, is threatening to pull out of the Dayton arrangement altogether. Its president, Milorad Dodik, who has corruptly run his para-state for most of the last two decades, isn’t hiding his resurgent nationalism. His threats to pull the RS out of Dayton are no longer idle fantasy. Washington recently retaliated by placing sanctions on Dodik for his efforts to sabotage Dayton arrangements. Undeterred, Dodik pronounced the American ambassador in Sarajevo “a proven enemy” of the Bosnian Serbs who was “unwelcome in the Republika Srpska.”

Read the rest at The Observer….

Trump Disrupts the Western Spy Alliance

Our new president’s rumored Kremlin ties are panicking our espionage partners

For three-quarters of a century it’s ranked among the world’s most important secrets. The American-led global spy alliance, born in the early years of the Second World War, is beyond question the most effective partnership in espionage history. Now, it’s all starting to come unraveled.

This remarkable hush-hush story began in the summer of 1940, in the dark days after the fall of France to the Wehrmacht, when Britain stood alone against Hitler, who occupied most of Europe. With his ally Stalin, the Nazis and Soviets had divided much of the continent between them, and it seemed only a matter of time before Britain gave in—as several ministers in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s cabinet were counseling, so bleak did London’s odds appear.

Britain’s secret ace in the hole, known to only a privileged few, was her ability to crack German codes, above all the Nazi Enigma machine, which gave London deep insights into the enemy camp. The Poles were the first to break into Enigma, and shortly before their country fell to Hitler and Stalin in September 1939, Polish intelligence shared their secret knowledge with Britain. There, codebreakers made quick progress against Enigma, a top-secret program they termed ULTRA. But they needed help.

That’s where American code-breakers came in. In the bleak summer of 1940, in a desperate effort to stave off British collapse, which would leave all Europe under the Nazi-Bolshevik yoke, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began assisting London with money, supplies—and weapons.

Read the rest at The Observer ….

Spy Clouds Hang Over Trump’s Inauguration

Trump is about to enter the White House with multiple  fronts in an ongoing skirmish with American intelligence—what happens  next?

Tomorrow Donald J. Trump will become our 45th president, an event heralded by his supporters as a big step towards changing the course of our politics and, per their mantra, making America great again. While the festivities have produced giggles from the president-elect’s semi-comical inability to get top talent to play his inauguration, a considerably more serious problem for Trump has emerged on the espionage front.

He weathered last week’s spy-storm, generated by Buzzfeed’s leak of a 35-page dossier of allegations regarding his clandestine ties to the Kremlin, by mocking them in customary Trumpian fashion. In a series of angry tweets, the president-elect denounced the Intelligence Community as the source of that leak—even though it was not—while proclaiming the dossier to be “fake news.” Since he recently compared American spies to Nazis on Twitter, Trump seemingly wants a full-fledged war with the IC from his first day in the Oval Office.

If America’s 17-agency spy empire isn’t on Trump’s side, Vladimir Putin is. In defense of the president-elect, the Kremlin strongman proclaimed the dossier to be “rubbish” and “clearly false information,” mocking reports of Russian kompromat, colorfully adding that those who he claimed were smearing Trump were “worse than prostitutes.”

To be fair, the dossier, which was compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer with extensive experience in Russian matters, does have dodgy aspects. As I explained last week, it’s raw, unfiltered human intelligence from multiple sources with varying levels of access and credibility. Some of the dossier’s claims are quite plausibly true, others are demonstrably false, while much of it is unverifiable and may be Kremlin disinformation. Given the long history of Russian provocation and deception against Western governments, a high degree of skepticism is in order here.

Read the rest at The Observer …